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The Maldives beyond the white-sand resorts

A Maldives resident gives an insider's view of life in the Islamic republic voted top non-European country by Guardian readers

Most people, when they think of the Maldives, imagine the scenes that dominate the postcards and brochures: the sandy beaches of the bikini-clad: the liquor-swilling, pork-guzzling symbols of Western decadence that constitute the country's 90-odd resorts. Here, a largely UK and European-led market pay staggering sums to assorted hotel empires for the privilege of doing very little, other than waddle across the sand to the next buffet to eat organic salmon air freighted from Scotland.

But there's another side to the Maldives, one of the world's newest democracies: a nation strongly protective of its Islamic heritage, grappling to understand the modern agenda of its young Wiltshire-educated president, and distrustful of change after 30 years of stable autocratic rule.

Western concepts of democracy and human rights are squaring off against conservative Islamic traditions, with often unexpected results. The introduction of the concept of freedom of speech has let both liberal opinion and a more conservative brand of Islam out of the bag, but has done nothing to dent Islam's moral authority over the nation. As a result, liberal debate remains stifled for fear of social ostracism.

Any conflict between Maldivian society and the haraam (forbidden) world of the resorts is circumvented by simply labelling the offending islands as officially "uninhabited", despite the fact that hundreds of people live and work there.

It all makes for a curious mix of bold progressiveness and flaccid appeasement, but simultaneously allows the country to make profits and modernise while keeping it safe from fundamentalist undesirables. You never know who you'll find at the other end of the Jacuzzi — this is, after all, where the Taliban are rumoured to come on holiday (at Paradise Island Resort and Spa, no less).

President Mohamed Nasheed's surging popularity on the international eco-circuit, prompted by the famous underwater cabinet meeting and bold declarations about making the Maldives carbon neutral by 2020, meanwhile belie the challenges he faces at home as he struggles to contain the country's more ambitious and power-hungry individuals, cash-fattened and well-resourced after decades of endemic corruption.

For despite having one of the world's most profitable per-capita resort industries, the Maldives faces a dire economic situation.

Fortunately the country's strategic location, Nasheed's eco-credentials and human rights ambitions saw enough interest from international donors to temporarily prop up the country's sedentary civil service.

Now Nasheed is faced with a dilemma: having succeeded in convincing donors that his country is sinking into the waves he now has to persuade foreign investors that the country will be around long enough to make it worth investing in.

Lately the eager environmentalist has mellowed into a more measured economist, and the Maldives has opened for business, however offbeat – from enormous floating golf courses to resorts staffed by blonde Lithuanian beauties (a forthcoming resort that will be known as the "Island of the Blondes"). See it before they get here.

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